Class Reproduction by Four Year Olds

I watched how class played out in a preschool classroom, creating disadvantages for the already disadvantaged and privileges for those born into privilege.

I spent eight months observing in a preschool classroom full of four years old. About half of the preschoolers in this classroom were from working-class families and were receiving scholarships to attend the preschool, while the other half were from upper-middle-class families who were paying up to the equivalent of a year of in-state college tuition for one year at the private preschool. Other than that the children receiving scholarships did not attend school on Fridays, everything should have been equal between the working-class and upper-middle-class students. They engaged with the same energetic and dedicated teachers, they played with the same toys, and they participated in the same learning activities.

I found, however, that the linguistic resources that the children brought to school made it so that everything was not equal. Upper-middle-class children tend to learn many more words at home. Betty Hart and Todd Risley, for example, discovered that upper-middle-class preschool-aged children speak more words per hour than do parents who are on welfare. Other research also found that upper-middle-class children learn to feel more comfortable approaching adults, asking them questions, and treating them as equals.

When children from different classes were in the same classroom, they spent different amounts of time “taking the floor.” Upper-middle-class children called out at story time, getting their voices heard while preventing the working-class children, who more timidly raised their hands, from being heard. The upper-middle-class children also interrupted, asked for attention, and requested help more often. Since the teachers could only pay attention to a limited number of events at one time, they often turned their attention to the more vocal students – students that were often upper-middle-class. This not only gave the upper-middle-class students more attention, but gave the already more verbal children more opportunities to improve their conversational skills. Working-class children were not purposefully excluded, but their style of waiting for adults to come to them meant that they had fewer and shorter conversations with teachers.

The rules of the school also inadvertently favored upper-middle-class students’ linguistic styles. The rules required teachers to help children negotiate when there was a toy that two children wanted. Upper-middle-class children tended to get into more disputes over toys, giving them more opportunities to work with the teacher about how to negotiate. Additionally, upper-middle-class children tend to learn at home that negotiations are useful ways to resolve conflicts; working-class children are more likely to receive orders from their parents about what to do. Therefore, when a working-class and upper-middle-class student disagreed about who would next play with a toy, it was the more practiced upper-middle-class student who usually won. Not only did this create inequities in who played with the desired toys, but working-class children learned that they did not know how to get what they wanted at school while upper-middle-class children learned that they did.

The ways that four year olds interacted with each other and with teachers therefore created disadvantages for the already disadvantaged and privileges for those born into privilege. Well meaning people and organizations can produce unintended outcomes.

10 Responses

    1. Jessi Streib
      Jessi Streib

      Hi Jennifer and Ann,

      The scholarship students didn’t attend preschool on Fridays because the scholarship only covered four days of a school a week.


  1. Suzanne

    You talk about “class” but not culture. Are the richer and poorer children from the same ethnic background? E.g. are you comparing impoverished Chinese-American children with wealthy Chinese-American children? Or are you comparing two different race groups – wealthy Caucasians and impoverished African-Americans, for example? Child-rearing practices vary by culture, not just “class” – it’s a silly oversimplification to say things like “working-class children are more likely to receive orders from their parents about what to do”. Furthermore – if your working-class children were the children of immigrants – they were probably bilingual; English vocabulary develops differently in bilingual preschoolers because they’re learning both languages at once.

    1. Jessi Streib
      Jessi Streib

      Hi Suzanne,

      Of course, you’re right. Students also came from different ethnic backgrounds and some were immigrant students. However, in this classroom it turned out that there were immigrant students from the same regions from working-class and upper-middle-class families. So I could still compare the immigrant working-class and immigrant upper-middle-class students to each other.

      There has been a lot of research, though, on class differences and how parents talk with their children. Obviously, this doesn’t capture every child — it captures patterns. It would be interesting to study the parents who fall outside of the patterns and understand their experiences.

  2. Thanks, Jessi, for the article. I think it would also be interesting to study the behavior of “negotiator children,” those children who interpret for parents and other adults, children who bridge between their families and dominant culture.

    I reflected on my own experience as an interpreter for my grandparents since Kindergarten/grade school and how that pushed me up to the front of the line! It helped build my self-esteem, my bold personality, and my courage to take on just about anything or anybody. But it didn’t work that way with some of my friends who were in the same position in their families. Some of those girls grew up in a cultural context that still required them to be “good girls” — quiet and subservient. I don’t know what it might have been like for boys in the same familial role.

    Bicultural and bilingual children sit precariously between two worlds and give access to others. They can either become invisible or stand out. Though I’m sure there are in-between identities as well. Hope other folks will speak up on this topic!
    As for cultural privilege, the first time I saw a parent sit down and talk to their kids when they did something wrong, was when I was with a white, upper class friend. His parents sat down with him, expressed their disappointment with his transgression. I had never seen that. My father was working class and each of us received physical punishment when we did anything wrong or spoke up out of turn. Learning that adults could use reason to teach a kid to do better was an astounding discovery for me at age 17. For our family, it was lack of education that gave our family a lack of physical boundaries.
    (Disclaimer: Of course, there are plenty of working class families who don’t use physical punishment on their kids, as well.)

  3. In Lisa Delpit’s new book, Multiplication is for White People, she spends some time engaging with the idea/research that # of words exposure in early childhood determines academic readiness/literacy etc. as they relate to home culture/class background of different children.

    The whole book is worth reading. She is brilliant, compassionate and every page seems infused with the love of children (and people).

  4. Kathy Modigliani

    What an interesting discussion. Thanks for your thoughtful work Jessi, and to commenters. As an ex-4-yr.-old teacher, all of this rings true to me. My question is what did the teacher do to counteract these imbalances? Supporting the dominant kids to listen to others as well as supporting the quieter ones to speak up, I hope? How do we extend “Created Equal” down to early childhood?

    Yes culture is important here too. One of the purposes of schools, even preschools, is to help children succeed in main-stream U.S. culture while also valuing their home culture – that is, ideally, to become bicultural. This begins with babies and toddlers. As in other areas of U.S. life, class is largely invisible in teacher education.

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